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Nation-Building, National Liberation and the Plurinational Working Class

Socialists and radicals have been and are grappling with how to grow and structure a movement to include meaningful liberation politics. Liberation politics are the politics of how we get free, the politics of ending and escaping white supremacy that is entwined with capitalist exploitation and ferociously adaptable. Here I want to suggest ours is a plurinational nation-building project, that ultraliberal and bourgeois ideas of liberation, and socialist attitudes towards “nationalism,” ultimately stand in the way of building that movement. 

So long as different segments of the working class experience more intense and specific forms of exploitation, the class cannot act as a whole for itself. Especially because one segment of the class at any particular time benefits from the oppression of another segment, at least in the immediate sense. The anticapitalist left and socialists have been grappling for years with how to grow a movement that can annihilate both capitalism and white supremacy. This comes up as anxieties over building a multiracial working class organization or movement.  

I want to argue as follows: that people of color largely identify with an in-group, a national group. That for the working class in our national groups, there is no interest in “abolishing” distinctions between groups, but rather in building up and securing our groups. That currently this “nation-building” interest, rooted in our social reproduction, is dominated by professional and bourgeois institutions that form peoples’ politics, and that therefore the representational approaches of both the bourgeoisie and activist left are bourgeois in character. That socialists therefore need to first let go of both our instinctive mistrust of “nationalism” and our internalized acceptance of bourgeois politics to start taking national liberation seriously. 

I. Towards National Groups 

Socialists’ goal is to abolish the class relation — a classless society. If you are working class, you want at least to rid yourself of being on the downside of the class relation. Ultimately to end the exploitation you need to end “class.” Being a person of color–a person outside of and on the downside of white supremacy–also involves a relation. As with class, there is an objective definition of being part of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or national identity, and a subjective experience of belonging to an identifiable group. Unlike class, there is no need to abolish the existence of these in-groups to end oppression. A “groupless” society is not our goal. The goal is a society where groups are free from domination. That simple fact has more significant implications than we may at first realize. 

Liberation politics starts with understanding how those of us who belong to these groups actually see ourselves. Not in some academic or activist sense but in a day-to-day sense, at the street level, at the intuitive level. This is why I suggest thinking about “national groups” rather than more abstract categories. For example, while terms like “people of color” are a useful political shorthand, for practical purposes “person of color” is not quite a primary category for an individual, particularly those of us raised and still situated in our communities.

Instead, the primary relationship for people considered to be people of color is to a particular nation-type group. I am a person of color; I am a “brown” person. I am treated as all of these things, but the thing I am irreducibly is an Iraqi Assyrian, that is my primary relationship. A national group is marked out by positive characteristics: cultural and religious practices, social traditions, a language or dialect, some degree of physical community, economic interconnection, and “historical constitution” — a shared understanding of a common historical root and political experience, often including political resistance to oppression. These are in-group features. They define our primary relationship to our “national group” identities. We have political common cause with expanding circles of identity, but these are inherently secondary.

Don’t confuse this with being associated with a particular “nation-state.” National groups are politically formed, have different self-identity in different contexts, and are in fact constantly in a state of formation. This is true for Assyrians, among whom there is an on-going political process of forming and defining the national group across religious, language, cultural, and tribal divides. The phenomena and political complexities of latinidad and AfroLatinidad is another example.

Those of us raised and living in stateless Diaspora nations are prime examples of the fluctuating and political nature of national identity. The in-group features we named earlier don’t require a state, a country, for us to have our nation. There are states with many nations within them, and there are nations without states. A nation that has no state, a stateless Diaspora, has uniquely challenging experiences and struggles. We have no state power. We have no consulates or publicly funded institutions. All that we can preserve about our national group we have to preserve through our own effort and by building up our own institutions and organizations from scratch. We have no home to go to. The nation is wherever we are. There is intense social pressure to be part of keeping the nation alive, to contribute to its survival. National groups have to persevere and build amidst an, at best, indifferent or, at worst, hostile population. Still generation after generation, they do so. They hold conferences and conventions. They fund scholarships, form student groups, purchasing co-ops, small business associations, professional associations, cultural bodies, charities, schools, social clubs, fraternities and sororities.

To both preserve group identity and social cohesion and win liberation from the exploitation of white supremacy, liberation must do two things: end domination by white supremacy and preserve the internal strength of the national group. Without both, either (1) a group or portions of it simply melt into “whiteness” and become part of white supremacy, or (2) oppression of the national group at the group level continues. 

This suggests that the path to stable, lasting, and meaningful emancipation from white supremacy and racial discrimination includes strengthening social cohesion, self-reliance, and cultural expression of the national group and a plurinational working class movement. 

Radicals and socialists, those in the West in particular, although this happens in other states with subordinate national groups, often have trouble articulating how socialism ensures the positive part of national liberation, i.e. strengthening the national group and not merely melting into or collaborating with a dominant culture. 

Meanwhile, the intuitive desire for nation-building explains why otherwise “bourgeois” institutions and figures are often seen as liberatory. “Self-made men,” banks, businesses and business associations, media, elite social clubs and fraternities, private schools, etc., are often associated with “independence” and liberation, despite being in essence still exploitative. Why? Because in the absence of socialism, they give national groups a self-sufficiency that softens the most apparent and vicious forms of exploitation. In that sense, these institutions are more liberatory than the promise of the end of “race” or “ethnicity.”

II. Liberal and Bourgeois Nation-Building

Members of national groups are reasonably skeptical of socialism ending inter-group oppression because socialists are often unable to explain how abolishing capitalism would not simply result in a classless society that nevertheless preserves racial castes, even as it dulls the sharpness of exploitation.

The example of Cuba is instructive, where the condition of Afro-Cubans substantially and significantly improved after the 1958 revolution, but racism on both the interpersonal and institutional level persisted, a fact which the government of Cuba acknowledges today. Domestic Afro-Cuban activists, while rejecting attempts by anti-Cuba governments and NGOs to exaggerate the problem, acknowledge that racism did not simply wither away after the revolution. Under socialism, there will still be a state, and institutions. What are socialists doing, not just rhetorically, to make sure that oppressed national groups can participate in that state, and those institutions, from a position of strength that will break the domination of white supremacy?

Liberal, ultraliberal and bourgeois politics have complicated the matter. The nation-building they engage in is bourgeois in character, building up a professional and capitalist leadership layer and pressuring institutions to let these representatives of oppressed groups in. They have trained generations of activists to conflate representation with power. This approach is not worthless — establishing beachheads in powerful institutions to change their behavior obviously has harm-reduction advantages and allows resources to be redirected. Of course without radical democratic organizations leading the group, this ends up happening through this professional and bourgeois layer, who in turn dominate the politics of the group. This approach makes sense for academics, professionals and capitalists who can individually gain entry to power structures, but it is not a solution for the working class.

For the working class of national groups, opportunity to enter institutions will never be a comprehensive solution. Nation-building that empowers a layer of the group to redirect resources downward is not sufficient for liberation. There is no social base that democratically controls the resources; instead a sort of “local” bourgeoisie is created who in turn are able to dominate the national group’s control of resources. The working class is kept a subordinated group to this layer of professional and bourgeois leadership. 

For those of us who grow up in a national group, nation-building institutions are where our politics are formed. This is an important point for us to remember and others to learn. Student groups, churches, nonprofit community groups and services, athletic clubs, cultural groups, local businesses, political caucuses, and youth programs are where people move out of the household and into conversation with their national group in general. These are the locations where people form their political worldviews and understandings of how political and social change happens. If these institutions are dominated by bourgeois and liberal (and, frankly, reactionary) elements, naturally those are the types of politics that will continue to dominate national groups. 

To better understand this idea of nation-building, we can think of it as a project of taking increasingly democratic control of the broad social reproduction of the national group, so as to break its reliance on white supremacist and capitalist institutions–and the local bourgeoisie.

III. Social Reproduction, and “Nation-Building”

Building up the national group, its institutions and radical organization is necessary to empower them to participate in self-governance as autonomous actors, not merely as subordinate groups shaming or disciplining dominant groups into ceding power. Democratic nation-building at the basest level, free from its bourgeois dimensions, is the work of a group taking democratic control of the basic elements of its social reproduction.

The Marxist theorist Tithi Bhattacharya has developed a theory of “social reproduction” that properly defines the working class by recognizing that workers “have an existence beyond the workplace,” and that this existence is key to their “productive lives.” Bhattacharya’s theory is complex and technical and can’t be fully reproduced here, what is important for our purposes is the idea that workers have a dimension beyond the labor they sell to capitalists. “Labor power” becomes a commodity under capitalism, but labor power has to be produced and reproduced. Bhattacarya describes a “circuit of social reproduction” that creates the labor power that workers sell to capitalists. This not only includes the literal production of humans and their feeding, clothing, hygiene, etc., but also “public education and health care systems, leisure facilities in the community, pensions and benefits for the elderly.” 

Under capitalism, there are, in Bhattacharya’s words, “capillaries” of social relations that extend between the workplace, the home, schools, hospitals, and cultural institutions that are necessary to “reproduce” labor, so that labor can be part of the circuit of producing value in capitalism. 

In many ways, this circuit of reproduction is a key political focus for workers’ movements. The things workers have most immediately fought for are parts of this circuit: health care, housing, child care, education, retirement and elder care, and true public safety. These are things that require labor, and often unpaid labor provides them. Often it is unpaid labor performed by women. And when the labor is provided, often it’s underpaid and provided by Black and brown workers. These are paragon demands — “non-reformist reforms” — of socialists. They are also public goods which are most often cited as being riven with discrimination between national groups. In the United States, what “reproductive” labor is provided socially — education and public safety — is deeply imbalanced racially and ethnically. The other areas, like housing and health care, are also characterized by disparate outcomes. It should come as no surprise that even these “universalist” demands can sometimes be cold comfort, unless they are paired with a specific plan to ensure discrimination won’t persist. 

Nation-building can be thought of as building a national group’s democratic control over their own social reproduction. This is not to say that it needs to be provided for wholly internally or in parallel, but that the group has capacity and strength to participate in generalized class struggle by having sufficient control over its own social reproduction. For example, that the group is producing its own teachers and health care workers and capacity to educate and heal; that it has sufficient control over land and its use to provide housing and public space; that there are systems for credit and finance that serve communities; that basic needs like food security, hygiene and public safety can be secured without an exploitative relationship with the dominant group. Socialists, and even progressives, might see in this the worrying seeds of “separatism”, but it is important to understand that a national group having democratic control of its own social reproduction is not the same as separatism. To the contrary, having this capacity clarifies the need for unified class struggle by eliminating the mediation of bourgeois institutions. 

Nation-building as the way to advance group control over social reproduction also helps explain why bourgeois institutions tend to dominate national liberation politics. There is a good reason for it: they engage in the type of activity that provides material benefits for the group, albeit in a trickle-down fashion. They provide scholarships, form professional associations that can mentor individuals into valuable social sectors, they build up nonprofits that provide entry to formal political power or provide needed social services, they form and fund legislative caucuses that win funding and grants for community programs, they support and sponsor religious institutions, found charter schools, businesses that hire locally, and run banks. They are the intermediate class redirecting resources to the nation. This bourgeois nation-building can never ultimately be liberatory; at best, it grows the group’s bourgeoisie to manage the group’s working class. 

This is the foundation of the often repeated quote from Black Panther Party of Illinois Chairman Fred Hampton that white capitalism cannot be fought with Black capitalism. But these bourgeois institutions do not enjoy support for no reason. They speak to a street-level desire for the security of self-reliant social reproduction, to the desire for social cohesion. So even where there is internal class antagonism, it is masked by the greater felt problem of capitalism’s racialized exploitation. Why are anticapitalists so ready to emphasize support of community-owned businesses? Why is the “self-made man” so often a figure of respect and political support? Forget activist circles, consider the typical person and the pride in and attraction to strong capitalist institutions built within and providing for the community.

Socialist members of our national groups need to ask ourselves: what exactly are we doing to compete with the dominance of this layer of leadership? What alternatives are we offering to build social cohesion and strengthen control over social reproduction of our communities? What spaces are we building where peoples’ political practices are truly formed at an early stage? If the exploitation of white supremacy masks the class struggle within national groups, what work are we doing to rip that mask off? Why should we expect our working class to “naturally” aspire to a plurinational working class movement? And of course: who but us can bring socialist alternatives to our communities?

What power base do we have to compete with the bourgeois institutions that dominate national groups? We have some interesting models to study, as we will see below. One example is that of multiracial unions in areas of social reproduction — teachers, nurses, elder care workers. Here, organizations made of members from national groups have a natural position in the “capillaries” of social reproduction. From this position, they can bring together community groups, organized workers, and public institutions to leverage resources and build up organization and secure resources to develop national institutions –”homegrown” social reproduction workers, funding for community and cultural institutions, etc. It can be helpful to trace some of the lineage of socialist approaches to this problem.

IV. Socialist Views of National Liberation Struggle

Socialists have historically and reasonably had an instinctive resistance to movements they viewed as nationalist, seeing nationalism as opposed to the program of building a united, international working class. What’s more, nationalist and independence movements have historically been dominated or led by the bourgeoisie, the “domestic” capitalist class, even when part of a coalition including socialists. 

Socialist groups and movements in the United States have experimented with different approaches to national groups, in part because class struggle is so complicated by the ferocity of white supremacy. White supremacy robs national groups of control over their own social reproduction, albeit through capitalist exploitation. 

Globally, national minority groups were often enthusiastic participants in broader anti-imperialist and socialist movements because of capitalism and imperialism’s dual-pronged role in their oppression. At the same time, these socialist movements, because of their “internationalist” orientation and aversion to nationalist politics, had persistent trouble accommodating the desire of subordinate national groups for some degree of self-reliance and autonomy. This has been true of socialist movements all over the world, but particularly in the West, and plainly in the United States. 

Socialists, white socialists and socialists of color, need to consider incorporating a better understanding of social reproduction and nation-building into the strategy of liberation politics, to jettison both the liberal representational worldview and the reflexive socialist aversion to nationalism by seeing the distinction between “small-group nationalism” and conservative nationalism. This approach is not particularly novel, either, despite seeming inimical to progressives and socialists alike. In fact it has roots going back to Marx and with a lineage through the Soviet Union and modern day Bolivia. 

Marx on Colonialism

Marx, when considering the problem of the Irish and Indian colonies, struggled with how to bring about an end to colonial domination without aiding and abetting the nationalist movements dominated by the local bourgeoisie. Marx was troubled by Irish separatism because it seemed to empower the Irish landowners and bourgeoisie, whom he feared mainly wanted to displace the English and take their place exploiting Irish workers and peasants. He saw the Irish workers’ and peasants’ fixation on ridding themselves of the English, rather than on cooperating with the English working class to overthrow capitalism, as a “monomania.” Over time, however, he came to see the advantage of weakening the English capitalists’ hold on Ireland. In a letter to Engels in 1867, he argued that should Ireland achieve independence, it should adopt protectionist trade policies against England, to enable Ireland to develop a non-dependent industrial base. He reasoned that without the intervention of English capital, the Irish working class would be brought closer to the international working class, while at the same time weakening English capitalists. Here is an early example of socialist “nation-building” arguments as a path to building an international working class. 

For Marx, the liberation that comes with socialism is a historical process that results from the development of capitalism. Capital introduced into a society “advances” it and rationalizes production, to a point where the working class can eventually revolt and seize the means of production for itself (we’ll see this analysis in a more contemporary situation below). As you can guess, his writing on colonialism is therefore sometimes strikingly uncomfortable, because it treats the introduction of foreign wealth as “advancing” societies. He made “objective” arguments that the introduction of foreign capital to a society advances its economy, while acknowledging “subjectively” that colonialism was barbaric and resistance was natural. He tended to judge anti-colonial revolts, as in India and China, by whether they had a “coherent, internationally oriented programme for reform.” He was skeptical of purely “traditionalist” revolts, or revolts, like what he suspected was happening in Ireland, where the local capitalists aimed only to replace the colonial masters. This would be a continuing theme.

Lenin on Nation-Building

Marx wrote newspaper columns and letters on the subject, but for the Russian revolutionaries, there was a state to run, one that included numerous national groups. The Bolsheviks had overthrown an empire that ruled numerous nationalities, and so long as there was the unified enemy of the Tsar, yoking struggles together was fairly straightforward. When it came to governing, the government in Moscow was faced with the challenge of national policy. It was a fairly vicious debate, with national groups agitating for more autonomy and freer self-development, and the core revolutionaries skeptical of “divisive” national group agitation. 

Vladimir Lenin, by the time his party was in power, had settled on an approach to the “national question” that vexed some of his more supposedly “orthodox” socialist colleagues in the Party. Near the end of his life, Lenin was almost obsessed with the pervasiveness of what was called “Great Russian chauvinism,” the attitude that took “Russian-ness” as the baseline culture and identity for the peoples of the former Russian empire, and therefore the new Soviet state. This attitude could be found even among people from the “national groups,” like the Georgians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Chechens, etc. Lenin declared “war” on Great Russian chauvinism, telling the ruling Politburo that he would “eat it with all my healthy teeth.” He rejected what he considered the lazy analysis that all nationalism, and therefore nation-building, was anti-socialist because it was divisive. According to Lenin, one must “distinguish between the nationalism of oppressor nations and the nationalism of oppressed nations, the nationalism of large nations and the nationalism of small nations…[I]n relation to the second nationalism, in almost all historical practice, we nationals of the large nations are guilty, because of an infinite amount of violence committed.” 

Lenin went further, indicting many in his party, including “Russified” members of oppressed national groups, of internalizing this “Great Russian chauvinism”: “Scratch any Communist, and you find a Great Russian chauvinist…he sits in many of us and we must fight him.” It is hard to read this debate and not see parallels to today’s debates that would be amusing if they were not alarming. At the time, Stalin denigrated Lenin’s position as “national liberalism,” which you can almost see in tweet form. To some degree, Lenin may have been “bending the stick,” in the (disputed) phrase of one historian, that is, taking a somewhat extreme position to correct what he saw as a dangerous tendency in the movement. Nevertheless, Lenin and his faction on this question were labeled as “nation builders” who wanted to allow a supposedly dangerous amount of autonomy for the national groups. 

While expressed in somewhat psychological and moral terms, Lenin rooted his approach in a Marxist rationale. He argued that small-group nationalist liberation movements were naturally dominated by the local capitalist and professional class, who had the most political freedom and resources, and strong incentive to take on the risk of fighting “great power” colonists in order to replace them. The persistence of capitalist imperialism “masked” the class antagonism within the national group and created a real common cause between the working class and the bourgeoisie. Besides, just as Marx had argued, colonial or imperial domination of a national group inhibits their own economic and social development, leaving the group dependent on an outside group, and undercutting the value of internal class struggle. 

For a national group to develop to the point where the classes truly start to separate and the working class can properly participate in broader class struggle, there needs to be a phase of increased nation-building free from imperial domination. This included encouraging and supporting the development of “national forms” including schools, cultural institutions, and political formations. Lenin predicted that in the short term, this would result in an increase in nationalist sentiment, but that eventually class struggle would intensify, and the national group working class would see itself as part of a broader working class that had to take power solely for itself, not share power with its local bourgeoisie. He was justified in part by the fact that, in Finland, class conflict (strikes, demonstrations, etc) had increased with the onset of independence. It was this Lenin, vociferously opposed to Great Russian chauvinism and a committed advocate to nation-building as a remedy to imperial domination, that Burkinabe revolutionary Thomas Sankara listed alongside Jesus Christ and Mohammad as the greatest revolutionaries in human history. 

Cooperative Economics in Black Liberation

This national group instinct towards internal development to allow for freer political growth runs deep in the United States, particularly in the history of Black liberation and its relationship to cooperative economics, although this was not strictly a socialist tradition.. W.E.B. Du Bois studied the question of self-sufficiency through cooperative economics intensively. He prepared a survey on the long history of Black cooperative economics in 1907, and held an influential symposium on the matter, which helped seed cooperative economic projects like collectively owned stores and housing, across the country. Ella Baker attended Brookwood Labor College on a scholarship in the early 1930s to study cooperative economic principles, and traveled across the country to Black communities to help set up study groups that could create cooperative economic projects. In her book on the subject, Collective Courage, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard delves deep into the history of cooperative economics as a strategy for Black liberation and self-sufficiency. The common thread throughout the book is that cooperative economic programs were a force for social, economic and political independence, creating the space for social peace and development. Their aim was to eliminate the warping effect of reliance on white institutions for the necessities of life — for the basics of social reproduction. 

Among the things learned by successive generations of cooperative economic work was that it was possible to create, e.g., staple goods markets on a cooperative buying basis even among the very poor. But these were co-ops unstable and, therefore, building a participant base of civil service workers, whose jobs were steadier and slightly better paid at the time, helped provide stability for the overall enterprises to survive. This gives us another example of the relevance of workplace connection wedded to the power of community efforts to actively and practically yoke segments of the working class together. 

For Du Bois and for the subsequent cooperative economics programs, the point was not to prefigure a world without exploitation, but instead to achieve some sufficient degree of stability as a precondition to political participation on a more even level. With minor exceptions, cooperative economic programs were not Utopian projects, but survival strategies on the road to broader political change (the Black Panthers termed their grassroots direct service programs as “survival programs”). They were not meant to isolate, but to build internal social cohesion and thereby political power.

MAS in Bolivia

In the current day, the socialists and radicals of the Moviemento al Socialismo (“MAS”) in Bolivia built on years of acute struggle by indigenous nations and organized labor against neoliberal policies and, to weld together what has been termed a “plurinational” movement. This type of movement is perhaps the best way to conceptualize what may be possible in the U.S. In MAS’s view, Bolivia is a nation-state composed of constituent nations, and to become a socialist state where power is held by the working class for itself, those constituent nations need to have real power over their own mode of life as a means to having real power to participate in national self-rule. In this way MAS is a plurinational party building a plurinational state.

There are some important considerations when looking to MAS. First, MAS is a movement party, not a mass organization. That is, it came together from mass organizations and trade unions, already constituted and engaged in struggle. The Party is structured towards competing for power in Bolivia’s specific legislative assembly system, which includes multi-member districts and proportional representation votes; one of the key functions of the party is determining who will stand for which office, i.e., determining a slate. 

Several major events that particularly activated the large indigenous nations, including the Cochabamba Water War, the “Gas War” and resistance of rural coca growers to eradication efforts between 1997 and 2001, sparked organized resistance and direct, often physical, conflict with the state. These events coincided with the formation of MAS by cohering these groups. MAS itself is composed of unions, including teachers unions, and formations of indigenous nations developing modern “communitarian” modes of rural life and agricultural production. This is important because MAS should therefore be understood as being in a significantly more advanced stage of organizational development than anything that exists in the US. It is the culmination of the building of mass organizations and revitalized, radical labor unions. 

Nearly half of Bolivia’s population is of indigenous origin, and two of the major indigenous nations, the Quechua and Aymara, are made up of component national groups. The internal composition and organization of these national groups is a matter of on-going political development and negotiation, which, again, can only happen internally and involves a political process in which radicals and socialists are actively engaged.

On the flipside, the concrete conditions of production are far less developed in Bolivia than the US. It is worthwhile to consider the analysis of Evo Morales’ Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, who, in response to a question of whether MAS’s project was one of building socialism, demurred: 

Socialism is not a viable project in Bolivia, because it can only be built by a strong working class base. The socialist utopia emerges from the extreme maturity of capitalism. In Bolivia there is no capitalism; 70 per cent of urban workers are in small family businesses. You can’t build socialism out of small business, but on the basis of advanced industries, and we don’t have that in Bolivia. You can’t build socialism where 95 per cent of the rural population live in traditional communal economies….[MAS is trying to build] a version of Andean capitalism.”

Linera could be read cynically here as rejecting socialism as utopian, but I tend to believe that instead it is a rather sober and responsible understanding of the concrete conditions MAS is working with. These conditions would obviously determine the political program MAS could feasibly undertake, given the composition of society. Bolivia’s economy relies heavily on extractive activity, pulling stuff out of the ground for export. Until that can be changed to a more stable self-sufficient system, or one that is part of an international system of mutual support (for example, with other left-wing South American states), a transition to socialism is not feasible. Again, we see the theme of nation-building reassert itself, this time in the form of economic self-sufficiency and assertion of indigenous modes of production. In any case, MAS as a party is constituted to address itself to the particular modes of life in Bolivia.

One of MAS’s great accomplishments was this “plurinational” approach that wedded the communal radicalism of largely rural indigenous nations to the more orthodox “proletarian” socialism of the urban working class. This was something that socialist movements in other parts of the world had consistently failed to do in a stable way. Often, the urban socialist core of a movement would come to dominate the rural peasantry. MAS has not been perfect on this score, and critiques of its policies while in power led to sharp unrest at times. Nevertheless, the commitment to recognizing and strengthening rural, communitarian ways of life was, in essence, a nation-building project. MAS’s commitment to a “plurinational” political system was an important step forward for socialism worldwide and a model to study for US socialists.

V. Who Are Your People?

A socialist movement has to assist in nation-building, although that work has to happen internally. The complex internal political workings of national groups means there will always be a need for a socialist base to compete for influence and power. Even a plurinational socialist movement itself cannot, on its own, effectively intervene inside national groups.

We cannot realistically struggle for national liberation without actively building a base of socialists and socialist “nation-building” institutions within our national groups, all with an explicit vision of joining and growing a plurinational working class movement. There has to be democratic control over the resources formed in and redirected to national groups. Socialists have to do this work, and the socialist movement in general needs to be patient, to lend its support, and challenge itself to understand the prerogative of these little-nationalist programs.  This means not that people of color should be pigeonholed into any one type of work, but that the broader movement needs to provide the resources and support to make this nation-building work possible, that our movement needs many parts, and among those parts are socialists engaged actively in the project of nation-building.

National groups have contradictory factions and an unstable or evolving sense of self-definition. The day will never come when there is perfect political unanimity, even where the group is unified in its acceptance of broad principles (being opposed to white supremacy does not imply a unified approach to opposing it). Within groups there are class antagonisms, ideological differences, religious and ethnic conflicts that pervade. Nobody speaks for the people. We can only speak for our people, the organized base of working class people we ourselves build. Anything else is sleight of hand. In the United States, national groups are often in a constant state of evolution in how we understand our own composition and the things that define us. This is particularly true for stateless Diaspora nations that lack a state somewhere in the world that provides stabilizing institutions. 

But, in any case, the structural political conflicts and ideological diversity within a national group highlight the fundamental error of bourgeois and ultraliberal liberation strategies, which believe an adequate degree of access to ruling class institutions is the key to national liberation. So long as there is political competition within a national group, there will never be satisfactory representatives, unless and until representatives actually represent a political base within that national group, one that can effectively move the group into struggle. In short, we have to have people: not circles of activists, but the organized contingent that is situated in the working class and actively contending for influence there. Participatory and democratic organizations and institutions in education, labor, in the provision of service and distribution of resources, the places where politics are formed. Otherwise the dominant bourgeois institutions within that national group can always simply sever and exclude socialists from acting within it. Too much of the social reproduction functions and political development of the group is routed through these bourgeois institutions; so long as that is true, they will always have the upper hand.

Earlier we discussed how some national groups could find themselves taking the course of “melting” into whiteness, of buying into white supremacy as a strategy of “liberation.” Obviously this is not true liberation, as it requires the destruction of those things that mark out a national group. What’s more, this strategy is tied to adopting the anti-Blackness and rejection of indigenous claims that characterize so many US institutions. Obviously, the socialist movement writ large needs to combat and undercut white supremacy within itself and in the broader society in all of its work. For socialists engaged in nation-building outside of Black and indigenous national groups, the plurinational worldview requires combatting and suppressing anti-Blackness and settler mindsets. For groups that have assimilated or partially assimilated into white supremacy, “liberation” from white supremacy often happened explicitly by uniting the community, not in forms of class struggle, but in the looting and brutalizing of the indigenous and Black nations. Communities were given access to stable social reproduction by participating in white supremacy. In some ways, this is the path of least resistance, but it is incommensurate with a plurinational working class movement and combating it must be central to socialist nation-building projects. The pull of anti-Blackness as a path to acceptance by the ruling class is strong, and so fighting it has to be front and center.

It is crucial that we bring a plurinational understanding of liberation, a vision of a unified but not homogenous working class to our work. Internal strength is a step on the road to liberation, but if we are not part of a plurinational working class movement, we will never win a true transformation of our society. We are not separatists, we are plurinationalists.

Only when socialists begin to engage in this work can they seriously expect a truly “multiracial” or, more properly, plurinational working class movement to emerge. 

Further Reading and Works Consulted

  • Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, Jackson Rising
  • Tariq Ali, The Dilemmas of Lenin
  • Santiago Anria When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective
  • Erica Benner Really Existing Nationalisms
  • Tithi Bhattacharya, “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class
  • Rod Bush We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century
  • Carol Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones
  • Mike Gonzalez, The Ebb of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America
  • Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World
  • Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx
  • Terry Martin The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
  • Jessica Gordon Nembhard Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice
  • Thomas Sankara Thomas Sankara Speaks, The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987